FORT WALTON BEACH — Okaloosa and Walton County School districts are both considering training and arming school staff members.
The school districts are contemplating the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program, a state program that was created in response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland in February 2018 that killed 17 and injured 17 others. The program allows Florida school districts to train and arm staff members but excludes classroom teachers unless the teacher is an active duty service member, current or former law enforcement officer or a JROTC instructor.
While lawmakers initiated the Guardian Program with the intent to protect students by arming trained school personnel, it has been met with controversy both at the state and local school levels.
Last year, 25 Florida counties and sheriff’s offices participated in the inaugural Guardian Program and spent nearly $2 million of state funding on training, weapons and ammunition for the staff guardians.
In Okaloosa County, the school district has been working with the Okaloosa County Sherriff’s Office via the School Resource Officer program, which places a certified Law Enforcement Officer in each school and two offices in the district.
Okaloosa County School District Superintendent Marcus Chambers said he is now ready to take the next step and approach the School Board with the prospect of adopting the Guardian Program.
“As Superintendent, I believe that we need to take a serious look at the Guardian Program as an enhancement to the School Resource Officer Program,” Chambers wrote in an email to the Daily News. “If we determine the Guardian Program can make our schools even safer, I want to take the necessary steps to get this program in place for the 2019-2020 school year.”
Participation in the Guardian Program is voluntary and must first be approved by each district’s school board in cooperation with the county’s sheriffs office. The program originally had a deadline of August 2018, which was then pushed to April 1, 2019. Governor Ron DeSantis then extended the deadline to August 1, 2019, to allow more Florida counties to participate in the program prior to the 2019-20 school year.
“The Guardian Program has the potential to add additional layers of safety and security as we simultaneously continue the work of hardening our schools,” Chambers said in the email. “I have made a request to the School Board to have a closed session meeting with the Sheriff, School Board Members and District Staff where safety and security plans and recommendations will be discussed.”
Chambers said that closed board meeting will take place at the end of April.
As for Walton County, Superintendent Russell Hughes said that he is in the process of proposing a form of the Guardian Program to the Walton County School Board before next school year.
“I am coming up with a plan to take to my board for a form of the program,” Hughes said. “We have not formally (addressed it) but we are looking into it.”
Hughes said that he has sent a letter to the state detailing his plan for Walton County’s participation in the program, and if approved by the board it will be implemented in the 2019-2020 school year.
Santa Rosa County School District does not participate in the Guardian Program, and Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick said there are no plans to participate in the program in the upcoming school year.